Picturing the agency of widows

Female patronage among the gentry and the middling sort of Elizabethan England

Authored by: Tarnya Cooper

Routledge Companion to Women, Sex, and Gender in the Early British Colonial World

Print publication date:  October  2018
Online publication date:  October  2018

Print ISBN: 9781472479945
eBook ISBN: 9781315613772
Adobe ISBN:


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In 1586, Joyce Frankland (1531–1587), the widow of a wealthy London goldsmith, left a bequest to two colleges in Oxford and Cambridge, following the death of her only son. Her intention was to “begett unto herself in virtue and in learning many Children” through the establishment of fellowships. Her gift of painted portraits to the institutions was an integral part of her patronage and ensured her physical bodily presence was displayed within these patriarchal spaces. This essay will look at the ways several women of the Elizabethan middling sort and gentry used their patronage and painted portraits to place themselves within established institutions, including both university colleges and livery companies. By exploring both the iconography of portraits and documentary evidence of the sitters’ lives, this essay explores how widows of merchants, retailers, and the gentry – often in the twilight of their lives – might subvert their personal narratives of loss, and rework the established role of a mother and nurturer within the public sphere in order to exert political, social, religious, and personal influence.

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